Once in a while, a book comes along that totally blows your mind. The Hate U Give is one of those books and everyone should read it right now. Even better, the author Angie Thomas, is a total sweetheart, absolutely bursting with passion. Here’s our chat – and you should totally check out the full article on BookBrunch – but you should also buy the book.
Angie Thomas has shot to literary stardom in recent months, as her debut novel The Hate U Give, skyrockets to the top of the NYT bestseller charts. Set to be published in 18 territories and counting – and already out here through Walker Books – the YA novel follows 16-year-old Starr, who lives between the poor Mississippi neighbourhood where she was born and a posh high school in the suburbs. When she becomes the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, she comes face to face with police brutality and systemic racism
After the intensity of the book, Thomas herself is a slight surprise: a generous smile, regular laughter, and a soft Mississippi accent. Her passion and conviction shine through, however, and she has much to say on publishing, on the importance of books, and on America itself.
The struggle to write
Though Thomas has been telling stories for as long as she can remember, it took her a long time to believe that being an author was something she could do. “For one, I never saw or met any authors who looked like me. Mississippi has a rich literary history, but most of them are either white or dead and I was neither! So it felt like it was something that I, as a black girl in a poor neighbourhood in Mississippi, just couldn’t do.”
Spoiler alert: This review contains massive plot spoilers about Fahrenheit 451.
In a year when readers seem to be turning to dystopias for sanity, there seemed to be no better time to return to Bradbury’s sometimes overlooked book, Fahrenheit 451.
Named after the alleged temperature at which books burn, the story follows Guy Montag, who lives in a world where books are banned, as they are thought to be the source of discord and unhappiness. As a fireman, it is Montag’s job to burn any books that are found. Yet, unhappy in his marriage and unsatisfied with life, Montag finds the lure of books too much to resist – and once there are books in his house, there is nothing to stop the feared Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department from tracking him down.
Fifty years on from its initial publication, growing post-truth, anti-intellectual sentiments in Western society have given Fahrenheit 451 new relevance, indeed in parts with almost uncanny precognition on Bradbury’s part. Many elements come into play during this book: the frustrating loss that comes with conformism; the borderline madness that comes with rebellion; the senselessness that must, after a certain point of tyranny, accompany political hope. Yet, to me, it is the end which is most pertinent in the current climate.
I am a great fan of a good bromance and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is all about the ultimate bromance. It’s a gorgeous, fantastic story of intelligence, friendship and betrayal told through hundreds of years, as one man lives his life over and over again throughout the 20th century.
Like so many novels, it benefits from a lack of spoilers, so I won’t say too much about the plot. It focuses on one mister Harry August, a man who after his first life, finds that he is born again instead of passing on. Instead of dying, he finds out that is he an Ouroboros, destined to live the same life over and over again, retaining awareness of every life and living on forever. Inducted into the Cronus Club, he finds others like him, and fits into a network of communication spanning across the centuries. But when he receives a message that the end of the world is fast approaching, he is drawn into a web of danger and cunning an attempt to prevent it.
Zombie fiction has become almost unfashionably in vogue this year, but The Girl With All The Gifts changes that, breaking every cliche. It’s got the pseudo-scientific theory and political commentary of World War Z, and is as unputdownable as Sci-Fi blockbuster book of the year, The Martian.
Protagonist, little girl Melanie, is a very special child. Kept in a compound with a group of other children just like her, she waits with excitement for her favourite part of her strictly controlled life, her lessons with the lovely and kind Miss Justineau. But the compound, and her life, are not as safe or regular as they seem, and when tensions rise between her keepers, she is forced to ask questions about who and what she is.
Descent is the story of Ryan and his friends in a near-future world, where Scotland is independent, CCTV sees all and augmented reality is on the rise. It’s sold as an alien abduction adventure, full of government coverups and conspiracy theories, but it’s actually much subtler than that.
As teenagers, Ryan and his friend Callum are caught up in a bizarre incident that they conclude must have been an alien abduction. Yet, the story of the abduction, and whether or not it was real or imagined, is secondary for much of the book to Ryan’s experience as a young person in MacLeod’s near-future sandbox. Ultimately, it’s a story of evolving science, genetic evolution, technology, the fashion of tomorrow, augmented reality – and the political impacts all these technological developments might have on us.
Until I was in my mid-teens, I lived in Fantasy and largely ignored Science Fiction. Seeds of Earth by Michael Cobley is a perfect example of the reasons why I began to pay attention.
Book one of the Humanity’s Fire trilogy, Seeds of the Earth is set some years after humanity was forced to flee from Earth by alien warfare. Three ships of humans were sent out from Earth, one of which landed on Darien after the AI on their ship rebelled against them. Isolated, without knowledge of the fate of Earth or the other two ships, they live alongside the native alien population of Darien, the Uvuvo, with their strange beliefs in the power of nature and the spirit of their planet. Over a century passes before they are contacted by the outside world. The message? Earth is out there still, and things have become political. As a devastating war threatens to erupt across the galaxy, the inhabitants of Darien find themselves in the centre of it, their people and their planet riddled with deadly secrets.
It should be noted that this is not the first time I’ve read Stormchaser. Over the years, I have probably read this book five or six times from cover to cover. It’s the first of The Edge Chronicles that I read, though arguably it was not the best place to start: the Chronicles are divided into an ever-growing series of trilogies, of which this is not the first of any. In fact, it’s the second in the Twig Trilogy, the first of the trilogies to have been written.
It was bought for me by utter fluke by an aunt and uncle one Christmas, and I’m always grateful for that because it is such a great read. Twig is a young Sky Pirate, who goes on a quest to find the elusive substance Stormphrax, which is only made in their heart of storms. Taking the lead of a merry band of academics and sky pirates, he pilots his sky ship, Stormchaser, back to his childhood home, the Deepwoods, in this action-packed YA/children’s adventure.
I have been told by many people that Neal Stephenson is an acquired taste. To which my response is normally, “Then you should acquire it.”
To me, he’s the height of intellectual science fiction, without taking it into the realms of abstraction as achieved by someone like Gibson, or lending it the academic dryness you quite often find, for example, in the fantasy of Tolkien. I mean, who but Stephenson could possibly come up with a way to make quantum mathematics interesting by comparing it to pink farting dragons?
Having said that, Stephenson does take patience. As with nearly all his books, it took me between one hundred to two hundred pages to get gripped, but after that, the next four hundred just fly by!
Anathem follows Erasmas, a young academic living in a sanctuary of learning, closed off from the public except for one day every ten years. He has an idyllic, secluded life, free of concerns until one day his mentor is expelled from the sanctuary and Erasmas and his friends begin to notice strange lights in the sky. Imparting the intricacies quantum mathematics with his usual narrative dexterity, this is a classic science fiction adventure tour de force from Stephenson.
It is a great grievance of mine that Science Fiction and Fantasy are often seen as lesser genres to literary fiction, or that if you write in a literary style you cannot appeal to audiences of these genres. To me, these views are utterly false. Thankfully, I think Karen Thompson Walker would probably agree, and neither of these quite popular views seem to have held her back when she created her extraordinary first book, The Age of Miracles.
Set in the near future, The Age of Miracles explores a world in which the planet Earth has begun to slow on it’s axis, and the experience of this by Julia, an American teenager. It’s a fantastically wrought piece, unfolding beautifully and eloquently across the pages. It’s almost oppressively anxious, without directly expressing much fear. The characters emotions are imparted obliquely and concisely, leading up to the final sentence with absolute poetic clarity. This is a book to read if you want to feel human.
The Discworld Novels are no-doubt familiar ground for sci-fi and fantasy fans everywhere. I am late to the party. Whilst I devoured the witches books as a teenager, seeking out any story that contained pointed hats in between Harry Potter releases, I don’t think I fully appreciated what Terry Pratchett was about until quite recently.
His dry, often sarcastic and ironic humour, is not my native ground and it’s taken me a while to develop a taste for his work, but now that I have, I love it. Bit by bit, I’m trying to make my way through all the Discworld books, but even as I expand my Pratchett-knowledge, I still love the character of Death best of all. So, of course, when I picked up Mort and read the blurb, I knew I was going to love it from the off.
Spoiler alert: This review contains massive plot spoilers about Mister B. Gone.
For some years, I was under the false impression that Clive Barker wrote exclusively in the fantasy genre, and had no idea he wrote horror at all. However, when I was a teenager, I discovered his huge collection of horror works and, while horror is by no means my favourite genre, I loved his writing enough that I thought I’d give it a go. Turns out, horror is still not particularly my thing – but I did stumble across Mister B. Gone, which offers much to the faint of heart and horror fans alike.
Told directly to the reader by a demon who was removed from hell, Mister B. Gone focuses on a building war between heaven and hell. The magical reveal moment – and to my fourteen-year-old self it was masterfully done – is when you realised that the devils and angels are fighting over
I will warn you before we begin, this is not a book for the faint hearted. It is, however, a brilliant, painfully emotive evocation of the powerlessness of women in patriarchal societies, and also in a more subtle way the miseries we inflict on those suffering mental illness by not approaching them with due humanity. As such, I strongly recommend it.
As it typical of Sam Youd (writing here as Hilary Ford), the plot is character-driven, fast-paced and gripping from the outset. Our protagonist is a young lady, apparently orphaned, working for a forward-thinking banker in the 1800s. Without great wealth, but with the love-interest of a solid young man named Michael and a steady income, Sarnia is pragmatic and positive. However, when her unknown relatives, the Jelains, turn up on her doorstep determined on reuniting her with her estranged father, she undertakes a trip to Guernsey which will change her life. Youd paints the darkness into this novel slowly, building an increasing sense of doom and captivity until you can hardly breathe.
Another historical fiction novel for you this week, this time Rebecca Stott’s The Coral Thief. Set in Paris in 1815, just after the expulsion of Bonaparte but before the status quo had been restored, it follows the adventures of a highly ambitious medical student named Daniel Conner as he undertakes a placement in the Jardin des Plantes. Unfortunately for him, as he is about to enter Paris, he encounters the stunning and mysterious Lucienne Bernard, who steals the letters of note and rare fossils he is carrying to ensure his entrance into the Jardin goes well. Unable to take up his placement until he has recovered the stolen artefacts, he is quickly consumed by the underworld of Paris.
Above everything else this is the coming-of-age story of a late-blooming young man, whose world is turned upside down by the still-lingering philosophical developments of Revolutionary-era Paris. It is portrayed in a neat and charming style,
Like many of the best books, Restoration was an accidental find. It appeared on my desk with a remark from my mother that I had better read something by Rose Tremain before we went to see her in interview as part of the Norwich Hostry Festival. It was, I hasten to add, a very happy accident: she is a really fabulous writer, and I have since read two collections of her short stories and am partway through the sequel to Restoration, Merivel: A Man of his Times.
Restoration is a historical novel, set in England during the reign of King Charles II. Focussing on the ambitious young medical student Robert Merivel, the novel covers his journey from the son of a glove-maker to the king’s favourite courtier. The King, under duress from his wife, marries his mistress, Celia, to Merivel, making him swear that while he can do whatever he likes with other women, he must not touch Celia. Of course, for poor Merivel, it is not long before he falls in love with her and his fortunes are destined to fall once more.
Named after the hybrid birds which become a symbol of hope and rebellion throughout the trilogy, this last book in The Hunger Games series will not fall short of expectations.
Having destroyed the arena of the 75th Hunger Games, defied the Capitol and escaped, Katniss finds herself as part of the underground community of District 13. Ruled by President Coin, District 13 is the mysterious last District which was supposedly destroyed by the Capitol when is tried to rebel, the defiant act which caused the instigation of The Hunger Games. Its citizens, however, have learned to live below ground, and now that the other 11 Districts outside the Capitol are rebelling, District 13 has become the backbone of the resistance. Distraught at the fact that Peeta was captured by President Snow at the end of the last games, Katniss is eventually convinced that she must become the ‘Mockingjay’, the symbol around which the rebellion will muster. Followed everywhere by cameras and interviewers and with a retinue including her best friend and possible love-interest Gale Hawthorne, Katniss must learn to fight and be strong despite her misgivings and personal crises.
There is always a danger, when you have enjoyed the first book an a series so much, that the sequel is going to be a disappointment. This was not the case with Catching Fire. In fact, I would go so far as to say I enjoyed it even more than The Hunger Games.
Having beat the system in the 74th annual Hunger Games of Panem, Katniss Everdeen has returned to District 12 with her fellow victor, Peeta Mellark. Living in the Victor’s Village, they barely talk to each other, and Katniss has returned to hunting daily with her best friend Gale Hawthorne, outside the boundaries of District 12. However, as Katniss and Peeta’s Victory Tour commences, President Snow, leader of the overruling Capitol, pays Katniss a threatening visit. With the lives of her family and friends in danger, Katniss becomes the centre of a political storm brewing across Panem. Seen as a symbol of rebellion, she is thrown back into The Hunger Games for their 75th year, along with her fellow competitors, all previous victors themselves.
The Hunger Games first came to me during a night of persistent insomnia which I hoped to dispel by reading some charming YA fiction with a predictable love-triangle and the safe knowledge that the good guys would win. Alas, I was awake until gone five in the morning because The Hunger Games is brilliant. I read the whole trilogy over about 48 hours flat, completely gripped by the story and the world.
The novel is set in the post-apocalyptic nation Panem, divided into twelve Districts, of which the first, The Capitol, is in control, and is told from the point of view of 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen. This first book in the trilogy tracks Katniss’ progress through The Hunger Games, an annual televised death-games involving children aged 12-18, one male and one female, selected at random from each of the twelve Districts. Ultimately, of course, we know Katniss is going to win, or the next two books in the trilogy would be somewhat void, but this doesn’t interfere with the drama of the plot. In order to pander the the Captiol audience’s whims, Katniss strikes up a pretend relationship with the male competitor from her District, Peeta Mellark. As the games continue, the force of their supposed relationship takes on a significance of its own in the outside world and by the end of the book, Katniss has undertaken actions which potentially make her a dangerous opponent to the power of the Capitol.
I have a bizarre fascination with visions of the apocalypse. From the twisted tales which came out of Byzantium in 600 AD, to the terrifyingly gripping World War Z. Today, I am going to sing the praises of an often overlooked, and by many unheard of, book: The Death of Grass by John Christopher.
I should say from the start that John Christopher is not the author’s real name. His real name was Sam Youd but he used a pen-name for his fantasy/sci-fi work, in order that his ‘serious work’ might not be tainted. Whatever my personal thoughts on this practice, his writing in The Death of Grass is at once astute, concise and enthralling.
Set in 1950s/60s England, The Death of Grass is part of the ‘floral apocalypse’ phenomenon which began in the late ’40s with books like Ward Moore’s Greener Than You Think. In Christopher’s work, the semi-apocalypse is brought about by a virus affecting all the grass families. That’s lawn, prairie, cereals – in short, as one of of my more cunning friends studying biology said – ‘We’d be f*cked if that actually happened.’
I confess, I have a growing obsession with Orwell’s work, not to mention the man himself. My latest read from his library is Down and Out in Paris and London. Originally printed in 1933, the book is a humorous and stark narrative on contemporary poverty in Paris and London themselves. The book had a controversial reception, not least by Orwell’s own well-to-do family, who disapproved of his exploits.
The opening chapter paints witty portraits of Orwell’s fellow-boarders in the Parisian lodging house where he was staying. The second chapter becomes much darker very quickly, setting the tone for the book’s constant contrast of hilarity and shock. Orwell is ruthless with the truth, something which, according to the introduction by Dervla Murphy and notes by Peter Davison, he later struggled with morally.
I fell in love with the most beautiful book in the world the other day.
It was not an extraordinary day – certainly not a day made for falling in love. It was grey and dusty and obnoxiously loud, like every London day, but so cold that even the blasting underfloor heating which normally turns the British Museum into a furnace couldn’t make us shed our coats. Killing time before our lecture, my friend Alex and I prowled around the bookshop, she in search of information on Turkic fabrics, I in search of whatever took my fancy.